Since my initial post on Rosner’s Domain about the internet and its role in helping to democratize Judaism, there’s been some back and forth. Here tis:
Your response was insightful and very convincing on a technical level – online Judaism will change “religious hierarchies and leadership structures.” You failed to explain, however, why it is good, or necessary, to change those hierarchies. How will this make Judaism more appealing, or better, than it has been for centuries?
I’m glad you asked the question in that way because, I think, the democratization of Judaism can make Judaism both more appealing and better.
Why will it be better? Because Judaism will be richer, deeper, and more meaningful if it is shaped by a diverse group of people. I have a lot of friends who are male rabbis, but there’s no reason why they should be capable of forging Jewish life on their own. If Judaism is shaped by a multiplicity of voices, then it will resonate more broadly.
Why will the democratization of Judaism make it more appealing? Because choice and autonomy are the hallmarks of modern living.
If Judaism is to be more “appealing” for modern Jews, it must be self-made to a certain extent. Again, I don’t want to overstate things. Tradition, religious authority, precedent: these are all important. But in a world in which identities are, to a certain extent made-to-order, it’s important that Jews feel like they have a role to play in the shaping of their Jewish lives.
So, in this world of a more democratic Judaism, how will the editor in chief of MyJewishLearning be able to separate the insignificant from the meaningful, the worthy of the readers’ time from the sheer nonsense? Education is always about hierarchy. If your job is to tell me what’s important to learn – but you don’t have any rules, or hierarchy to build on – how will you do it?
Democracies aren’t free-for-alls. Just because everyone born in the United States can run for president doesn’t mean they will. But whether they run for president or not, they bear some responsibility for the state of their country.
So saying that individual Jews should have a role in shaping their Judaism–and Judaism in general–isn’t the same as saying that anything goes, that there are no rules, no standards.
Let’s take an example of one successful attempt at democratizing Judaism: the independent minyan movement.
Much has been written about the phenomenon of (usually) young Jews in New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc, eschewing synagogues and creating their own Shabbat services. I have been to three of these minyanim in New York: Altshul, Hadar, Darchei Noam. What do they all have in common? None of them have rabbis. Or stated positively: They were all founded by passionate, educated laypeople. And because they had a more democratic genesis, those involved have higher levels of investment, and stronger senses of responsibility.
That’s what I’m trying to encourage.
At MyJewishLearning, we try to provide accessible information from a broad array of perspectives on as many topics as we can. We allow our readers to choose what, when, and where they learn. We establish their universe of options, you’re right. We decide what topics we choose to cover. We decide how long our articles should be, how much editorializing they can include. We turn down articles that don’t seem appropriate for our site.
But we also exist in an environment with checks and balances. Readers could critique us on our website or on other websites. In fact, we might not be the best website for everyone. And that’s fine. It’s important that there be multiple places online for people to explore Judaism and Jewishness. But ultimately, on MyJewishLearning, we don’t tell people what to do, what to believe. We give them the resources and tools to decide those things on their own.
I’m not advocating any sort of revolution. I’m not throwing out the canon or looking to reject rabbinic leadership. I’m saying: Let’s cultivate this democratic spirit that exists online and is emerging offline, as well. Let’s harness new technologies that will support and encourage this movement. And let’s see where it takes us.